Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Martha Moxley Murder

The Trial: Superior Court Weighs Trial Agenda

Throughout June, 2000, the Michael Skakel case has been gearing up in the Fairfield Court House in Stamford, Connecticut, promising further revelations in the months ahead. Alleged to have slain Martha Moxley on pre-Halloween Prank Night in 1975, his part in the murder continues to be a did-he-or-didn't-he melodrama.

Commencement of a trial is delayed, however, until the judicial system decides whether or not there exists enough evidence to bring Skakel to trial and, if the case is tried, whether or not the defendant will be tried as an adult or as a juvenile.

According to CourtTV Online, after closing arguments at the latest hearing Wednesday, June 28, "the question of whether Michael Skakel should be tried as a juvenile or adult ... is now in the hands of a Superior Court judge."

Added CourtTV, "At the close of a three-day preliminary hearing Wednesday, Judge Maureen Dennis said she plans to clear her schedule to work on the unusual case and release a written decision at her 'earliest opportunity.'"

State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict hopes that Judge Dennis will opt for an adult trial, which, if the defendant is convicted, could carry a 25-year-to-life-term prison sentence. Michael's lead defense lawyer, Michael Sherman, on the other hand, believes that since the crime was committed while Michael was 15 years old, the case should be presented under juvenile jurisdiction. Under statutes that existed in Connecticut in 1975, the year of the murder, Skakel, if found guilty, might be faced with no more than a two-year incarceration under child penal laws.

After Skakel's arraignment for murder in March of 2000, Skakel, currently 39 years old, once again asserted his innocence, telling Dorothy Moxley, Martha's mother, "You've got the wrong guy."

The histrionics continue to heat up. They blazed when the press leaked that prosecutor Benedict had uncovered a pair of condemning witnesses: two former students of Elan School, the drug rehab center in Maine where Skakel attended after the Moxley tragedy, who were willing to testify that they heard Skakel "admit" to killing Martha Moxley. Subsequently, Benedict admitted that he had conversed with two men now in their late thirties, who did indeed remember a Skakel "confession" while rooming at Elan simultaneously to Skakel.

Sherman and his defense team jumped on the band wagon immediately, denying the authenticity of any such testimony, claiming their client was being framed, and announced preparations to wholly contradict any such perjury. Sherman's preparations included the finding of three witnesses who knew Skakel from Elan to shoot question marks into the prosecution's platform

To date, both sides appear to be at a stalemate, equally impressive. Throughout the last weeks of June, 2000, a pre-trial hearing surfaced dialogue from both the prosecution's witnesses — John D. Higgins and Gregory Coleman, both of whom gave damaging testimony — as well as the three witnesses for the defense — Sarah Petersen, Angela McFillin and Alice Dunn — who called Higgins' and Coleman's testimony all wet.

Benedict's witnesses took the stand first.

"He related to me that he had been involved in a murder...or thought he had been involved," Higgins told the hearing on June 20. He recalled how Skakel mentioned to him that the memory of the night was hazy, but remembered going through the family's golf clubs before the murder. "He said that he didn't know whether he did it (but) eventually said the he, in fact, did it."

In separate testimony, ex-Elan pupil Coleman testified that Skakel told him he bashed Moxley with a golf club after she refused to have sex. Coleman claimed that Skakel then bragged, "I'm going to get away with murder. I'm a Kennedy."

Michael Skakel (AP)
Michael Skakel (AP)

But, Michael Skakel never made any confession, said three others who knew him well at Elan. One of these witnesses testified that everyone at the school knew of the Moxley murder and some of the students badgered him incessantly — but Skakel never talked. Said Peterson, "They would pressure him for days, months, weeks. It was unending." She apprised that if] he had confessed, the confession "would have been broadcast far and wide."

McFillin and Dunn related that at a 1979 group therapy session, other students harassed Michael Skakel to tell the truth about Martha Moxley. The session was overseen by school director Joseph Ricci, they said, who let the attendees have their way with Skakel and did not interrupt even when the others began calling him "spoiled brat" and physically beating him. The session, they believed, was an attempt by the school staff to beat a confession from Skakel. But, Skakel never confessed.

Emotions were high as witnesses bantered their respective theories of the innocence and guilt of the defendant, and lawyers from both sides challenged the testimonies of each other's witnesses. Defense attorney Sherman pointed out that certain elements of prosecutor Benedict's witnesses did not fit the established facts, but Benedict attributed the "sketchiness" to a memory lapse of so-many years. And the state's attorney also expressed his doubt that, despite the three girls' clear testimonies, that they had ever been privy to what really was said behind closed doors.

In the midst of the action, CourtTV reporter Harriet Ryan noted an interesting side piece. She writes, "Skakel's Kennedy connection was in evidence when (cousins) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Douglas Kennedy sat in the front row of the courtroom with Skakel's siblings. Skakel had a falling out with some of the children of the late U.S. senator several years ago when he testified against the late Michael Kennedy in a sexual misconduct matter, but the Kennedys' appearance indicated the families were united."

What's next?

As the nation waits for Judge Dennis' decision, there remains an uneasy tension over Stamford that much, much more is to come.

John Moxley, Martha's brother, defines the apprehension with a keen philosophy: "It's not over. It's just getting started."

truTV's Crime Library will keep close watch and report on other unfolding events. Stay tuned.4